Coaxing the fourth and fifth fingers into action

‘My little finger just won’t work on its own’; how often have I heard this phrase from disgruntled piano students? Too often is the answer. Pupils invariably spend so much time focusing on and looking at the music on the desk, that they forget all about posture and technique.

One of the major technical obstacles when developing a piano technique is allowing all fingers to work equally and properly from the knuckles. This takes time, a lot of energy and practice in the right direction. Many think scales will adequately help fingers to work equally but this is usually not to the case. Scales do help finger independence but they don’t help all fingers; the fourth and fifth fingers are normally left to limp along on their own.

The fourth and fifth fingers are always the weakest in both hands but especially in the left hand. If they don’t play alone, that is, independently of the other three, or thumb and two fingers, then playing becomes uneven and haphazard to say the least. Rapid passage work can become unrhythmical. Tone production suffers too.

So what can be done to aid this problem? Firstly, arms and wrists need to be very flexible and ‘free’. Many students find tension really hinders their playing, sometimes leading to pain or worse, repetitive strain injury. Tension is necessary in order to play at all, but it’s the wong kind of tension that stops fingers and wrists from working properly. It can take lots of time correcting tension problems. However, by working on fingers individually whilst ‘freeing’ the wrist simultaneously, the weaker fingers begin to work. It does take time but once understood, pupils are so pleased to feel more in control when executing fast  passage work particularly.

If you want to start improving the technique of your fourth and fifth fingers, then begin by allowing your whole arm to become a dead weight, hanging totally free by your side. Once it feels totally relaxed you will know how it needs to feel when you play. When working on strengthening fingers, try to use a rotating wrist motion every time you play a note with a different finger, so in effect, you are disengaging (or freeing) your wrist so as to stop any tension which may result when playing from one finger to another. Problems begin when students keep stiffness or continue to be tense when playing from one finger (or note) to the next without letting go of the tension in between. Tension is only required at the moment of impact. Try this at very slow speeds especially when working at the fourth and fifth fingers.

Allow the fingers to play on their ‘tips’ which generally produces better results than flat fingers and make sure you go down to the bottom of the key bed so as to produce a rich full sound.  In a sense, you are using arm weight to play each finger via a freely rotating wrist. It takes a while to get used to this motion but once each finger has learnt to play from the knuckles on its own, using the weight of the entire arm behind it, but without any tension in the wrists, then your fingers will begin to gather some strength.

Tone production and finger strength are very much linked and it’s a good idea to work at this with very simple studies – Czerny’s  Exercises Op. 101 or perhaps The School of Velocity Op. 299 are both excellent; you could actually use any piece which features scalic passage work. These are easy enough not to disturb concentration allowing pupils to focus purely on the technical task in hand; it’s also much more effective if studies are learnt from memory, so students are free to observe their physical movements. The wrist really needs to be totally flexible at all times as do other parts of the body especially arms and shoulders (shoulders are usually raised when they are tense).

Twenty to thirty minutes of concentrated slow practice per day should be all that is needed on studies in order to start improving finger strength and create a relaxed hand and wrist action. It’s important to emphasize that any technical improvement takes time and patience.  Playing in a different way will feel completely alien at first but it will certainly be worth it in the end.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. ethel says:

    i have schaum finger power books level 2, 3, nad 4. will that help streghten my fingers? where can i buy ‘the school of velosity op.299 and czerny’s exercises op. 101

    1. Hi Ethel,

      I’m not familiar with the Schaum excerises but I’m sure they would help…it’s more to do with the way they are practised than anything else. You can order the Czerny study books from Amazon.

  2. montreux says:

    Great article, but I couldn’t follow this sentence:
    ‘When working on strengthening fingers, try to use a rotating wrist motion every time you play a note with a different finger, so in effect, you are disengaging your wrist so as to stop any tension which may result when playing from one finger to another’

    Is there another way to explain this. Or maybe a quick phone cam video showing it in slow motion.

  3. Hi, Thank you.

    It’s so difficult to explain and this was the best I could do…..I need to show it in a video blog. When I demonstrate to pupils I make them feel my wrist motions and then they copy them…..I always reiterate that you can’t learn technique by reading about it.

    You basically need to use tension to play a note then quickly lose the tension as soon as you have played it. Problems begin when students playing from one note to another and retain stiffness in between. Rotating the wrist is a good way of losing that tension.
    Hope this helps………

  4. Hi Melanie,

    Although the original article was written a while ago we just picked up your recent tweet about this post and thought it was great. Of course Amazon have the books available but we also have them available on Two Circles Music as well and I hope you don’t mind us mentioning it.

    There are actually two versions of 101 Exercises Op.261 published by Faber and Stainer & Bell. The Faber version is the more recent one with practice notes by Christine Brown and is the same price as the S&B version.

    The School of Velocity Op.299 is published by G. Schirmer and available here:

    If you need any more help then just let us know.

    Simon @ Two Circles Music

    1. Always good to know where the suggested scores can be purchased Simon..thanks for this.

  5. Leo Petroni says:

    Good and useful article, thank you! I would like to know wether there are books or exercices designed for developing techniques on making the fourth and fifth fingers sing when used in chords, isolating them from the rest of the notes of such chord.

    1. Hi Leo, Many thanks for your comments. Glad you like the article. There may be exercises for these fingers when playing chords – many Czerny Studies have chordal sections which would be useful for what you are proposing. It is the way Studies are practised rather than their content….

  6. Peter Hau says:

    Thanks for an interesting article. But I was wondering, if you have small hands, how do you best reconcile a relaxed playing technique with that? Pieces automatically require stretches that makes it almost impossible to relax in the wrist and often it affects the sound and feel of the piece. What is the best advice for that situation? I can reach a ninth.
    Best regards Peter

    1. Hi Peter, Many thanks for your comment. That’s the conundrum with piano playing – we need to be able to relax whilst playing larger chords and intervals, otherwise the hand and wrist feels rigid and tense. When playing larger chords and octaves, I work with my students so that they are able to relax their hand in the ‘outstretched’ position. It involves relaxing the hand’s tendons whilst it is playing the octave, and eventually the position feels natural and ‘loose’. We work at ‘releasing’ any sense of stiffness – it can help to ‘drop’ the wrist and arm, too, releasing muscles. It takes quite a bit of work over a period of time, but my students never have issues with chords or octaves again. Hope this answers your question. Best wishes, Melanie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.